Genius, and other essays/Treasure Tombs at Mykenæ
TREASURE TOMBS AT MYKENÆ
IN the following article I endeavor to give a statement of the significance, from a literary point of view, of the remarkable discoveries thus far made by Dr. Schliemann in his explorations at the site of Mykenæ. In order to do this we must recur to the epics of Homer and the majestic drama of the Attic tragedians—to the poetry of a race which has furnished the most exquisite models of all succeeding verse.
Children, reading translations of Homer with delight, yield by instinct to the charm of his matchless beauty and simplicity. They no more question his narrative than they doubt the histories of Cæsar and Napoleon, the voyages of Dampier, or the tales of the Conquistadores. But the most of us, when once past the age of faith in fairy-land and fable, have classed the songs of the wrath and valor of Achilles, the wit and wanderings of Odysseus, and the woes of the house of Atreus, among the more doubtful legends belonging to the youth of the world. The theories of Heyne, Wolf, and their pupils, which made the Homeric poems a growth or collection, rather than a personal composition, have caused us almost to distrust the individuality of Homer himself. The best scholars have become reluctant to give any credence to the historical import of the Iliad and Odyssey, and indeed of the glorious procession of the Athenian masterpieces, whose themes were largely taken from the episodes and traditions gathered in the measures of the blind Ionian bard. The geography and narrative of Herodotos were long under a similar cloud. The known absurdities gravely interspersed throughout his history stamped him as a marvel-monger, and served to vitiate the entire record of the Pierian books.
But in our own time a change has marked the opinion of the critical world. The exact research of modern travellers and geographers has proved that Herodotos, while overcredulous in minor and hearsay matters, was correct in essentials, even to the general topography and ethnology of the remote portions of Central Africa. And as for Homer, we begin to see in his poems a single creation, rather than a growth, and again to conceive of his simple and poetic individuality,—a blind, gray-bearded, heaven-endowed minstrel, wandering from Smyrna to Greece, and there from province to province, idealizing the history of his heroic period and race, and, either by oral or scriptural methods, fastening his ballad-epics upon time itself, so that, handed down from sire to son, they became the enduring treasure of all generations of mankind. We begin to feel—making allowance for the supernaturalism of an age when nothing was known of the earth itself, beyond the pillars of Herakles on the West and the Ganges on the East—when the gods were thought to be the progenitors and companions of men—allowing for this we not only begin to feel that the Iliad and Odyssey are true to the physical status of the Mediterranean islands and shores, but we more than suspect that their stories of wars and warriors, of voyages, sieges, and of civil and domestic life, are the narratives of actual matters which were of the highest relative importance in a half-barbaric age; lastly, we look backward to find that Homer's personages were living, loving, warring, human beings, and that, while yet scarcely having left the flesh, their deeds and sayings, by turns wise and paltry, joyous and tragical, were the most exciting themes of the minstrel of that ancient time.
One of The Tribune's writers has well said that it is indeed a most fortunate thing that this man of our time has believed in Homer; that Dr. Schliemann was so impressed in youth with faith in the reality of the actions and manners depicted in the Ionic verse as to acquire a fortune with purpose to become an explorer, and to prove by his own exertions the general historic truth of the Iliad and Odyssey. There has been much dispute over his achievements in the Troad. The spot selected, after preliminary experiments elsewhere, for his serious efforts to uncover the ruins of Troia, was chosen against the judgment of many scholars. The unearthed relics, although marked with the sun-emblem which might typify the name of Ilios, were not of such a character as at once to remove all scepticism from European archæologists. Even in his own country his reports were received with criticism. Worn down by fever contracted on the banks of the Simois and Scamander, and hindered by the distrust of the Turkish authorities, he transferred the scene of his operations to Greece. Here Curtius has been achieving wonders at Olympia, and restoring to light the buried temples and effigies of all Olympos' hierarchy. But the disciple of Homer has undertaken labors that make the field of Olympian researches seem comparatively modern, and now startles the reading world with the progress of his work at Mykenæ—a city destroyed by the Argives in the century after the erection of Olympia's first temple—a city whose king was the most powerful chieftain in Greece at the time when, with the collected Grecian fleet and more than a hundred thousand warriors, he sailed from Aulis to recover Helena and demolish the "lofty walls of Troy."
Among our own experts, Bayard Taylor, the traveller, poet, and Hellenist, was one who fully and heartily declared his belief that Dr. Schliemann had discovered the true site of Ilion. His essay, which first appeared in The Tribune, was the most complete and pronounced of all the tributes awarded to the discoverer, and greatly encouraged him to continue in his chosen career.
No coldness, in America at least, attended the reception of the news from Mykenæ which reached us on the l0th of December. The Herald of that Sunday contained a telegraphic report of Schliemann's dispatch to the King of Greece, dated November 28, and I think that the heart of each lover of learning, art, or song, leapt with wonder and something like delight, accepting the genuineness and importance of the results obtained and the promise given out. It was felt that here was something substantial. There is no dispute over the site of Mykenæ, as over that of Troy. The Cyclopean ruins, described by Pausanias 17 centuries ago, are still partly visible to the traveller. The oral and written tradition of his time assumed them to be the very walls and monuments of Agamemnon's city, and, if they were not, their vraisemblance was the image of reality itself. According to the chronology which scholars usually adopt, Mykenæ was at its prime B.C. 1184—the date of the fall of Troy. It was destroyed by the Argives B.C. 468, 2,344 years ago, and there is no historic evidence that a new city was built upon its ruins. All this rendered it the more probable that under the dust of centuries Schliemann might have found, in comparative preservation, the vaults and secret treasure-houses of the early chiefs of Argolis—possibly the once revered tomb of the King of Men himself. In a later dispatch we learn that Schliemann thinks the site was again peopled, and that an Argive city existed there for a long time, because the surface of the ground is full of the remains of a Greek age. On the 19th of November he had discovered enormous tombs, at the depth of 25 feet, surrounded by parallel Cyclopean walls; on the 24th he opened two more, which contained the bones of a man and a woman, and from these and adjoining vaults he obtained a vast amount of archælogical treasure—urns, vases, sculptures, diadems, masks, domestic implements, sceptres—much of it pure gold, the rest composed of bronze, silver, and even of crystal and precious stones. The details of this marvellous "find" were but briefly indicated in his hurried letter to King George, in which he waived all claim to the treasure, "sufficient to fill a large museum, and the most splendid in the world," and offered it "with intense enthusiasm, entirely to Greece."
Later dispatches enumerate the articles found and fully confirm the assertion of the explorer, besides giving a more elaborate description of the position and character of the tombs thus opened. But when the first news crossed the Atlantic, it was felt, I say, that here was something of priceless meaning, and our own people were moved to something of the "enthusiasm" displayed by the joyous discoverer himself. True, he had used similar language in respect to what seemed to us the less assured triumph of his labors in the Troad. But it is this unbounded eagerness and delight which go to the making of a great explorer and finally produce splendid results. There is always a sufficient number of critics icily cold to freeze out those who are pretenders; and when a worthy aspirant appears, it requires all the energy of a strong nature to sustain before them his heat and noble rage.
The interest taken by our intelligent public in the news from Mykenæ at once found expression in the daily journals. Let me allude to the amusing and somewhat provincial inconsistency of our English cousins in their comments upon our acquaintance with those paths of culture to which they have long been wonted, and which are supposed to lead to sweetness and light. For years they have accused us of too much pedantry and refinement in our life and letters. They have deprecated our hankering for the methods and relics of the Old World, for "the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome." They have berated us for neglecting the home field, for our inability to discover American themes and properly treat them. Yet when some veritable success is reached by Americans in a field of which they claim the usufruct, they strike a different attitude, and we are treated to sneers at our ignorance, boorishness, and lack of scholastic feeling. It may be, as The Saturday Review implies, that it was necessary for us to purchase the Cesnola collection, seeing that therefrom, "as years roll on, American ladies will learn that Phoenician is not the European way of pronouncing Venetian, and popular education will thrive immensely." But the majority of the readers of The Tribune are more familiar with the geography of Europe than any thousand men you can find in London are with that of these United States. I need not speak of the additional charm which for us our very isolation bestows upon the antique. But let me cite a fact which has its application. I am told that in this modern mercantile city of New York a "Greek Club" has been in healthful and vigorous existence for the last nineteen years. It consists of a dozen gentlemen, gathered from various callings, who meet weekly at one another's houses, during the winter months, and read the texts not only of the purest and most famous authors but of the minor relics of the Greek tongue. Doubtless some of these gentlemen, if we seek no further, will be able to enjoy and study intelligently the coming Cyprian antiquities, and doubtless there are others of their breed, even in our frontier towns, who take a lively interest in the researches of Curtius and Schliemann. It was a citizen of New Hampshire who assisted Di Cesnola, at the most trying period of his undertaking, with friendship, presence, and material aid. If any country has a better right than our own to the purchase of treasures unearthed by an American consul, who depended largely on America for his resources, let its learned representatives now speak or else hereafter forever hold their peace.
We come to the dramatic suggestiveness of Schliemann's discoveries, in their bearing upon the history and literature of ancient Greece. Agamemnon, the King of Men, son of Atreus, brother of Menelaös of Sparta, lord of Mykenæ, and called by Homer the "ruler of many islands and of all Argos," is the heroic central figure—or figurehead—of the Homeric poems, as the leader of all Greece against Troy. In the Iliad he acts as a presiding genius, towering above the host as Saul above the people, the emblem of sovereignty and justice. The entire epos of that poem grows out of the dispute between him and Achilles as to the possession of Briseis. After the fall of Troy, the prophetess Kassandra, daughter of Priam, became the captive mistress of Agamemnon, and, according to tradition, warned him against returning to Mykenæ. In the Odyssey, the story of his death is told and retold at different stages of the poem. Ægisthos had been left in "horse-pasturing Argos," by the king, as his viceroy, during the war. As years rolled on the treacherous cousin succeeded in gaining the guilty love of Klytæmnestra, wife to Agamemnon, and the pair seized upon the kingdom as their own. Fearing the wrath of the injured chieftain, they conspired to murder him upon his return. Of this tragedy we have two accounts—the epic and the dramatic. According to Homer, Ægisthos, when notified of Agamemnon's arrival with but a handful of his troop, went forth to welcome him, and to invite him to his mansion. There he fell upon him at a banquet, and slaughtered him and all his companions, including the royal captive, Kassandra. The fullest Odyssean version is to be found in the Eleventh Book, wherein Odysseus relates to Alkinoös the story of his wanderings subsequent to the war. He recounts his visit to the ghostly land of the Kimmerii, and the incantations which brought to him the souls of the dead.
This passage I translate from the text of Dindorf (somewhat hastily, but with due regard to literalness), into that English measure of six feet, which, although very different from the classical and quantitative hexameter, is thought by Matthew Arnold to be the one which most nearly imitates the unceasing rapid current of the Homeric song, and in which we can best preserve the stress of minor words and particles, and render by an equal number of English lines the verse of the original:
THE DEATH OF AGAMEMNON
[Odyssey, XI., 385-456.]
Afterward, soon as the chaste Persephone hither and thither
Thus ends the Homeric version of Agamemnon's taking off, and, like everything in Homer, it is the more impressive for its directness and pathetic simplicity. Granting that the bard, nearly twenty-eight hundred years ago, was recounting events that occurred two centuries earlier, the dreadful tale would then have been comparatively fresh tradition and entitled to the force of history.
Four hundred years afterward, Æschylos made the Attic drama a thing of power and life, affecting the entire range of Greek literature and the sentiment of his people and the State. By this time the simplicity of Homer's history,—or of the Homeric legends, if you choose,—had been superseded. Upon Herbert Spencer's theory of progress a great advance was made—the change from epic plainness to the complexity of the drama, and especially to the abstract impersonations and psychological grandeur of the choric mythology. A still more refined and complex group of ideas came in with Sophokles and Euripides. Whether owing to the lapse of time or to the imagination of these sublime tragedians, the tales of Homer became intermingled with a variety of heroic lore, glossed over with a new dramatic interest and thoroughly infused with a philosophy that was but dimly perceived by the father of epic song. Among the ideas powerfully worked out by Æchylos, and heightening the gloom and glory of his dramas, were those of Tendency governing the history of a person, family, or race; of Nemesis waiting upon crime; of Remorse, and Expiation; finally, of a Destiny to which the Gods themselves must bow. To utilize these, and make them effective elements, he and his compeers took liberties with the record and legends of their country; liberties greater than Shakespeare has taken with the chronicles of Lear, Hamlet, or Macbeth.
The murder of Agamemnon, it is already seen, involved the great accessories of the highest drama, and necessarily became the leading tragic theme in Greek literature. It was the royalest chieftain of his age upon whom was wrought this murder, "most foul, strange, and unnatural." In Homer, ambition, guilty love, and jealousy, are the combined motives of the deed. But, to satisfy the wider scope of the dramatists, new forces had to be introduced. The sun is not extinguished by a convulsion that might blot out a star. Nothing but the hand of Destiny, and the implacable Erinnyes, can destroy an Agamemnon. Hence, Æschylos compelled the tragedy of the Atreidæ to date back from the unnatural crime of Atreus himself, who proffered his brother Thyestes the flesh of that brother's son, and who was slain by Thyestes in atonement. The Gods were not forgetful, although permitting Agamemnon to rule in splendor over Argos, and Menelaös to rule over Sparta. Menelaös loses Helena, and the King of Men, at the height of his renown, is murdered by his spouse and her paramour. Here Æschylos also adds, as a human element, the indignation of Klytæmnestra at the death of her daughter, Iphigeneia, decoyed by the King to Aulis under pretense of her marriage to Achilles, and there sacrificed to appease the goddess Artemis. To the king's death succeeds the punishment of the traitorous lovers, who die by the hand of Orestes. The parricide, in turn, is pursued by the Furies, who are appeased only through the intervention of Athena and the Athenians. Finally, the woes and wanderings of Elektra, the sister of Orestes, supply another theme, by turns forceful and tender, to the three tragedians and their differing dramatic modes.
If, among the seven plays of Æschylos remaining to us, there are one or two valuable for little more than their illustration of the birth of the Attic drama, we are compensated by the preservation, not only of the sublime Prometheus Desmotes, but of the three, intense in human interest, the Agamemnon, Choëphoroi, and Eumenides, which make the Oresteian Trilogy complete. It is the one, the priceless trilogy which has come down from its author and its age. In Agamemnon the King is slain by the direful hand of Klytæmnestra herself, who then and there became the typical murderess of all aftertime. The Homeric story is discarded, and the wife kills her lord as he emerges from the bath, entangling him first in a garment as a fish in a net. Leading up to the climax of the tragedy we have a dialogue, outside the palace, between the captive Kassandra and the old men of Argos who compose the chorus. In translation I have, with few exceptions, followed Paley's text:
[Æsch., Agam. 1266-1318.]
Chor.—O wretched woman indeed, and O most wise,
Chor.—How now? What horror turns thee back again?
* * * * *
(She enters the palace.)
Chor.—Of Fortune was never yet enow
Agamemnon.—Woe's me! I am stricken a deadly blow within!
Whereupon the old men, one by one, make some terror-stricken and absurd remarks, which only serve to fill out the time until the royal murderess can enter upon the scene. The poet evidently conceives her as a stately and defiant woman, despising the clamor of the throng, while she stands full height in the palace door, still holding the bloody weapon in her hands:
Enter Klytæmnestra, from the Palace.
Klyt.—Now, all this formal outcry having vent,
The third thrust, given by the Queen, to make the murder sure, or, as she puts it, "as a votive offering to Hades," is an act in strong contrast to the timorous course pursued by the Klytæmnestra of Homer—who has not wholly unsexed herself, but flees in terror from the corpse-strewn banquet hall. Æschylos drew the prototype of Lady Macbeth, and nothing equal to the foregoing speech appeared again in literature until Shakespeare wrote:
Infirm of purpose!
I will omit the greater portion of the choruses and dialogue which follow the Queen's avowal, but translate a few of the strophes and antistrophes alluding to the evil auspices of the Atreidæ and to the sacrifice of Iphigeneia:
Chorus. Woe! Woe!
A volume might still be written upon the strength and beauty of the Agamemnon of Æschylos. But for the purpose of this sketch no supplement is needed to the masterly criticism of Schlegel and Müller, or to the verdict of poets and men of letters from the earliest time. Kassandra having shared, as she had predicted, the fate of her master, the doors are opened, and Klytæmnestra and Ægisthos, with loving words to each other and defiance to the populace, retain possession of the kingdom. In the remaining portions of the Trilogy, one woe doth tread upon another's heel. The Choëphoroi recounts the vengeance of Orestes, who finds his sister offering libations at their father's tomb, disguises himself, and finally slays his mother and her paramour. In the Eumenides, haunted by the ghost of Klytæmnestra, and lashed by the Furies, he goes to Delphi and Athens for trial and expiation. These dramas are second in importance only to the Agamemnon, and afiford vivid illustrations of the poet's affection for Athens, and of the greatness of that city in his own time as the centre of culture and power.
Only one of Sophokles' plays is devoted to the theme before us. With his special refinement, and tenderness for woman, he made Elektra its heroine, and analyzed her feelings and experience. This drama, like the Choëphoroi, narrates the punishment of the Queen by Orestes; but here the accepted legends were changed again to suit the genius of the poet. As for Euripides, it is not strange that, after the theme had been already used by his great masters, he should have made a failure with his own Elektra. In Orestes he was more successful, as far as tragic power is concerned, but the piece is involved and burdened with extraneous incident. In Iphigeneia in Aulis and Iphigeneia in Tauris he discovered a field and heroine of his own, and, especially in the former play, earns his right to be called "Euripides, the Human," and justifies the lines of Browning:
* * * * * *
Then music sighed itself away; one moan
Without looking beyond the epic and dramatic poets, it is seen that the story of the woes of the House of Atreus assumes the foremost position as a theme for the daring efforts of the great masters of antique song. It also has been more deeply wrought into the heart and structure of general literature than any other tale of olden time. It has been cited and utilized by sages, historians, romancers, throughout the centuries even to the present day. The killing of Agamemnon became the ideal murder of imaginative literature, the standard from which all others take their measure; more truly so than that of Abel by Cain, because it involves a larger association of human motives, revenges, expiations. It has been treated in a hundred modes, from the primitive and serious chronicle of Homer to the charade enacted by Colonel and Mrs. Rawdon Crawley (the latter "quite killing in the part") before the noble guests of my lord, the Marquis of Steyne.
What historical bearing, then, has the news thus far received from Dr. Schliemann upon the tradition whose literary significance we have been examining? In the least hopeful view—should no unmistakable symbols, or other record, come to light—the discoveries already made, taken in connection with the results attained in the Troad, will greatly strengthen our faith in the historic value of enduring song. In those who have always thought of Agamemnon as a hero of pure fiction, it will breed a disposition to consider him a veritable personage, who ruled and died in Argos, and the catastrophe of whose death was somewhat as stated in the Odyssey.
Little in classic story goes behind the fall of Troy. Agamemnon and Helena are of the celestial breed. Another generation and you come to the demigods; one more, and to the Gods themselves. All this is precisely on a level with the tradition of other peoples, as they have reached the Homeric plane of enlightenment. The same in Assyria, the same in Phœnicia, in Egypt, in Peru and Mexico of the Western World. Less than four centuries ago an Homeric civilization was found and overwhelmed by Cortez and Pizarro. Allow for the inferior quality of the darker races, scarcely capable, if time had been given, of a much higher development, and how closely analogous the civilization of the Aztecs to that of the Homeric chiefs! Colossal architecture, wealth of silver and gold and the products of the loom, superstition, priests and soothsayers, royal demigods, altars for human sacrifices, the latter more frequent and more sanguinary in the New World than in the Old. All this blotted out in a recent period, and yet before Science had arisen to properly analyze and perpetuate its record. And now the whole round world is known to us; and now, the round world over, the Trojan ages are forever past.
- New York Daily Tribune, January 13, 1877.
- The Evil Genius, the Avenger.